WEB ONLY: Step-families need special work

Finally there is help available for people living in, or thinking about creating, a step-family.

The unique challenges and struggles experienced in what is often mistakenly referred to as the blended family are now being recognized and talked about. The old myths so many grew up with that promoted the idea of a “wicked stepmother” and other negative references to parenting are being explored, dissected and put to rest.

The role of step-parent is unlike any other role people might have taken on in the past. Without support and under­stand­ing, it can seriously im­pact on the sense of self. It can be confusing, frightening, and lonely. It can cause people to wonder about their relation­ships. Basically, it can become one of the most difficult, con­flicted and emotionally painful experi­ences of our lives.

That was certainly the case for me during the first several years of my second marriage.

The good News is that when the truth emerges about step­families, there is a huge amount of hope for their success. That is particularly important given that there are now more step-families than biological or “original” families in our soci­ety.

One of the traps that seems to catch us in our efforts to be a loving spouse and a parent to our partner’s children at the same time, is the idea that step-families can operate the same way biological families do. They cannot.

They begin from a different place in our lives, often follow­ing a significant loss. They are often forums for conflicts of loyalty, and the playing out of different parenting styles. Yet these challenges are to be expected given that before the couple’s relationship even has a chance to develop, there are already children in the picture.

Another trap that we can fall into is thinking that when two adults, at least one of whom has children, come to­gether in a loving relationship, the offshoot of that will be “one big happy family” or “instant love.”

The expectations we impose on ourselves and our new spou­ses can lead to frustration, re­sentment and a breakdown of the couple relationship and ultimately, the family.

The challenge for partners living in “step’” is to focus on the strength of their own relationship.

When that is healthy, loving and emotionally safe, the fam­ily will grow from there. The need for house rules and clari­fication of each family mem­ber’s role is vital.

However, what is most im­portant in the survival of the “blended” family is the sense of love and security felt by the adult partners with each other. When that is in place, the child­ren can also come to experi­ence a sense of safety and sec­urity, a crucial step in building a truly blended and loving family.

Marnie Smith is a relation­ship therapist and certified coach for Norfolk Psycho­logical Services in Guelph.